The Foundation and the Fire

What Gospel Preachers, Pastors, Leaders, and Teachers Must Understand

Gospel teacher, the Bible teaches that your work will sooner or later be exposed. Whether you build a true building upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, build a weak building on Jesus Christ, or teach an altogether false gospel (and those are the three categories), God will expose your work sooner or later – and that with fire. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 says:

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw–
13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

However you teach, preach, minister, and lead, you are accountable to God for it: “the Day will disclose it.” Paul writes the same earlier, “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.” Every minister is the same: an underservant accountable to God alone – not to numbers, not to other ministers, not to evangelical organizations, not mainly to the congregation, but to God alone.

So ask yourself two simple questions:

  1. Do I believe verse 11, “No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ,”? Do I believe that Christ, not my words nor my ingenuity nor my attendees, is the foundation? Do I feel that deeply in my soul? Do I live and teach and preach that fact? If I do, servanthood and accountability in the ministry will flow out of that Spirit-filled fact.
  2. Do I believe 1 Corinthians 2:2, Luke 24:27, Luke 24:44, 2 Timothy 3:16, and a host of other passages which teach that teaching and preaching Jesus Christ alone from all the Scriptures for the salvation of sinners is the central, foundational, essential criterion by which all “Christian” ministry will be judged? If I do believe this, teaching Christ from the whole Bible will be not a chore, not a boredom, but a blessing of the “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:15).

If, however, you believe #1 but not #2, then your work will soon be exposed by the purifying fire of God Almighty.

If, even worse, you believe neither #1 nor #2, then verse 15 doesn’t apply to you, because you are not a Christian. Your life, rebelling against Jesus Christ’s lordship from head to toe, is no Christian life at all and will be consumed with fire.

We see then that this passage is not about heretical teachers but weak ones. Heresy – including the prosperity “gospel” lies (1 Timothy 6:6-10) – kills both the teacher and its believers.

Twelve Ways Romans Uses the Law

Romans uses the Mosaic law to:

  1. Convict of sin (ch. 1)
  2. Give just grounds for God’s wrath (ch. 1-3)
  3. Prick the conscience and lead to repentance (ch. 2)
  4. Show our utter inability and depravity (ch. 1-3)
  5. Show the glory of God’s promise to Abraham (ch. 4)
  6. Show our failure in the First Adam (ch. 5)
  7. Show Christ’s glory as the Second Adam (ch. 5)
  8. Explain our slavery to sin (ch. 6)
  9. Heighten our sense of sin (ch. 7)
  10. Show our freedom in Christ by the Spirit (ch. 8)
  11. Explain the proud failure of even the most law-oriented (ch. 9)
  12. Explain Christ’s substitution for us (ch. 10)

As always, there are probably more. But the point is: neglect neither the law nor its teachings!

Archives: “Do Stuff” Still Isn’t the Gospel

Talking with a friend tonight, we were both reminded of the great glory of the grace of God in the gospel. God requires not that we “do stuff” to earn His favor or His forgiveness, but commands us to trust Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins and eternal favor. The gospel isn’t that we “do stuff,” but that Jesus has already done all we need.

Here’s a rundown:

  1. Jesus Taught Justification by Faith Alone
  2. Did Jesus Teach Justification by Works?
  3. What Preaching the Gospel Is, and Isn’t
  4. Matthew 23: More Reasons “Do Stuff” Isn’t the Gospel
  5. “Do Stuff” Isn’t the Gospel
  6. Drink Deeply of Jesus Christ
  7. Hate at the Bottom of Your Heart
  8. Opinions We Make Into Law
  9. Is Your Church Characterized by Commands or Christ?

My prayer is always that we treasure Jesus Christ more through believing the gospel.

Afflicting the Unconverted

Mike McKinley’s Together for the Gospel 2012 talk about preaching to self-deceived unbelievers in our churches is full of gems. Here’s one:

“[Self-help teaching] only creates high-functioning citizens of hell.”

The whole thing is worth listening to, particularly if you don’t realize the effect of so-called “cultural Christianity.”

As McKinley reminds us, Christianity is a radical thing, not something you slide into because it’s convenient. It is our job, as believers, to help people see their true spiritual state.

Good Deeds And/Or Gospel?

I intentionally inverted the order in the title, because Paul gives us the correct connection in Titus 3:4-8:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness,
but according to his own mercy,
by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that being justified by his grace
we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things,
so that those who have believed in God
may be careful to devote themselves to good works.
These things are excellent and profitable for people.

As someone who struggles to be devoted to “good works” that are “excellent and profitable for people,” hearing a ton of “do better” from well-meaning advisors, it is refreshing and life-giving that God doesn’t do that here.

Let me repeat: the Lord of the universe, all-wise and powerful, full of zeal for His glory and compassion for His children, doesn’t just tell us to “be devoted to good works” first. Instead, He teaches his leaders to remember the gospel (v.4-7): that God saved us in His goodness, not because of our own, through the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, who justifies us and gives us a sure hope of eternal life. Then, because of this, he wants us to be zealous for good works.

Note the order: gospel, then good works. Gospel then good works. It’s not the other way around.

When people have a “works” problem, they really have a heart problem, and only the gospel addresses the heart. Good works can “adorn” the gospel (Titus 2:10), but never are the gospel.

So, when I fail in good works, remind me of the gospel. Remind me of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit to helpless sinners like me. Remind me that Christ died to redeem me from lawless deeds and purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14).

Then, and only then, there is a place to explain these good deeds. But, please, don’t just tell me to do good works. That’s “do stuff.” That’s legalism. That’s not the gospel.

No Other Message

Thomas Jones, from a 1976 lecture, “Preaching the Cross of Christ”:

True Christian preaching must center on the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is the central doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. All other revealed truths either find their fulfillment in the cross or are necessarily founded upon it. Therefore, no doctrine of Scripture may faithfully be set before men unless it is displayed in its relationship to the cross. The one who is called to preach, therefore, must preach Christ because there is no other message from God.

[Quoted in Bryan Chappell, Christ-centered Preaching, p.271]

The Proof is in the Preaching

Lots of us (sinfully) enjoy moralistic sermons (“do good,” “be a better person,” “take care of your finances,” etc.), but Bryan Chappell warns that no preacher accidentally omits the gospel:

A message that merely advocates morality and compassion remains sub-Christian even if the preacher can prove that the Bible demands such behaviors.

(From Christ-Centered Preaching, p.268)

So give your favorite works-preacher a close listen, and see if he gives weight to the weighty gospel or to the weak man.

The Redeemer > The Redeemed

In his recent post,”What Does It Mean to be Biblically Balanced?” Tullian Tchividjian explains how the Bible places a premium on the gospel:

The emphasis of the Bible is on the work of the Redeemer, not on the work of the redeemed.

To the Wicked, Grace Doesn’t Come First


[photo by Mr. Stein on flickr]

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a fellow school administrator about how to deal with our lawless students. She firmly believed that we, as educators, ought to give students as much grace as possible before giving them law. This, to her, was exactly how we “show Christ’s love.” I disagreed then, and I still do. Here’s why: this principle is the exact opposite of God’s.

God gives law to the proud and grace to the humble. As Ray Comfort says, “You will never see the Lord Jesus giving grace to a proud, arrogant, self-righteous person. He doesn’t do it.” But, where Ray applies it mainly to evangelism (and we should), I’m applying it to all of our dealings with others, particularly with children.

Thinking Like a Child
When I was a child (I might say with Paul), I thought as a child. I hated law. And as a young adult, I mostly still did. I remembered my angry chaffing at “legalistic” teachers and principals and didn’t want to be like them. But, even as a child, I knew it was worse for teachers to give a pass to a prideful child (sometimes even their own child!) instead of giving them their lawful consequences.

But as time in the classroom went on, I became a father, too. And I learned the truth that, in this fallen world, everything still runs on rules and regulations. It’s just the way things go, because that’s the way God wants the world to operate. He wants us to learn the principle of sowing and reaping. He wants us to learn His economy of sin and consequences. He wants us to know about motives, actions, and just deserts.

False Grace Barricades True Righteousness
Isaiah makes this perfectly clear when he preaches in Isaiah 26:9-10:

    When your judgments are in the earth,
        the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
    If favor is shown to the wicked,
        he does not learn righteousness;
    in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly
        and does not see the majesty of the LORD.

Here’s the proposition: If grace (“favor” in verse 10) is given to the wicked, then that false showing of grace obscures the wicked man’s ability to “learn righteousness.” In other words, to the arrogant, a lying grace barricades true righteousness. And, since true righteousness is the display of God’s glory, this lying grace further blinds him from “see(ing) the majesty of the LORD,” (verse 10).

Therefore, any insistence on grace to the proud is:

  1. A lie. Grace to the proud is not true grace.
  2. Dishonorable and degrading to the name and character of God. It mangles His majesty and rends His righteousness.
  3. Harmful and dishonest to the proud student. This slithering, mangling “grace” teaches no grace at all, but pictures a cuckhold of a God who winks at our sin.

Law Isn’t Evil
But it feels so “mean” to use the law, right? The law is good, Paul says, when it is used lawfully. It is for the evil, adulterous, dishonest, greedy, sexually immoral, violent, and oppressive people in our midst. We ought to use it. We must use it.

But using the law doesn’t mean that we must use it with a legalistic spirit. The law must be the tutor to bring people to Christ. So use it, teachers, to show your own conscience and that of your students that we have all failed before God’s holiness and stand in need of His mercy. Then, your consequences must be fair, just, quick, and loving, given with an eye toward repentance and restoration.

The Use and Consequences of Law
Consequences should match the crimes. For example, when a student skips class, she should receive a zero for the day and come back after school to make the class up, missing any extracurriculars or other commitments. When a student steals something, he needs to return it, pay it back again, and receive a in-school manual labor suspension. When a student cheats on a test, he has earned the right to get a zero on that test, no opportunity to replace the grade, and a short-term suspension. Anything less than these consequences teach students a lie about God’s character and His economy in the world.

But all of these very fair consequences must also be used redemptively, with the stated goal of repentance (reparations and consequences aren’t necessarily repentance) and restoration. Once the student deals with her consequences and returns, she must be as full a part of the school as her own attitude will allow.

The Economy of God
These things must be so because this is how God has structured our lives in a fallen world. We need the law to teach us right from wrong, we need it to establish boundaries and standards in our lives, and we need it to teach us that we are unable to live up to God’s holiness. Indeed, we must never think that anything but the blood of Jesus can save us.

Proverbs 22:15 says it this way:
    Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,
        but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.

And all the parents, youth workers, and teachers say, “Amen.” We must discipline and apply the law and its consequences, as is appropriate regarding our calling and relationships, in order to teach people the majesty of God.

When a law-breaker learns to stand before the enthroned King and say, “Woe is me! I am undone!” then he is well-positioned, the Bible says, to cry out for mercy to the Son of David, the King of Israel, the Christ of God, who kept the law in the place of everyone who repents and believes.

So don’t give the wicked in your midst a false grace, give them the very real law and its consequences, that it would train them toward Jesus Christ.

Open Wide the Closets of Darkness

John Mark Reynolds says that “coming out of the closet” is a good thing. Here’s why.

Church, Love All Your Families

From Pastor Kevin DeYoung, in “Love for the Big and the Small

Think of all the trouble we get into in the church, and on this issue in particular, because we assume the worst. Big families assume smaller families are being selfish. Smaller families assume big families are out to prove something. Parents assume their children are rejecting their choices when they make different ones. Children assume their parents would have acted like them if they were more spiritual. And everybody assumes everybody else is assuming something about them!

This is not the way of 1 Corinthians 13 love and it has to stop. Let’s assume the best of each other on this issue and not assume we’re being judged because someone else feels strongly about the way they do things.

Every Command is a Gospel Command

A few years back, I remember hearing a young man ask the question at a youth retreat, “How far is too far to go with a girl?” The other leaders answered, “Well, you know when it’s too far,” or, “I wouldn’t even touch the girl until we got married,” and on and on.

But God reminded me at that moment that we aren’t primarily commanded to “do stuff” in the Bible, for doing stuff can never save us (not even from staining our purity before God). Lots of folks think the Bible is a list of rules (“DO pray; DON’T sleep around”), and that’s true to a point. There are lots of good rules. But it’s not ultimately true or good without the gospel.

Take John 20:30-31 for instance,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John could have written down a lot of other things for a lot of other reasons, but he tells us that by the Holy Spirit he wrote down what he did “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ.”

“But wait,” you say, “There is something there that we’re supposed to ‘do.’ It says we will have life.” Yes, I say, it does say we’ll have life “in [Christ’s] name,” and by particular means “by believing.” Whatever things we have or do is by trusting on Jesus and living by faith in Him.

This is not “Do Stuff.” It is the gospel.

Take again for an example Colossians 3. Paul will go on in verses 5-25 (and into chapter 4) to lay out several specifics in how Christians are to live: kill your own immorality, stop lying, be humble and kind to each other, forgive each other, live thankfully, work hard. But the way God lays those commands out and frames them in the gospel is utterly important.

Notice the first four verses:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Under God’s Spirit, Paul begins the section by writing, “If then you have been raised with Christ.” The command of seeking heavenly things is couched in the reality of being raised with Jesus. Knowing His resurrection is the foundation of the command. The command is a gospel command.

Paul goes on to say that our lives are dead to this world and hidden with God because we died with Christ and He is hidden with God. We are to live out the truths of the gospel by believing these facts. Jesus is risen; all who believe are His.

These are gospel commands.

We could multiply examples:

  • In Ephesians 4:32, God tells us to forgive each other and be kind, as He in Christ forgave us.
  • Hebrews 10:19-25 tells us to draw near to God, hold fast to the faith, stir up each other to love, and continue meeting together because Jesus gave us entrance to God by His shed blood and constant intercession as high priest.
  • Even as Jesus commands anyone who would come after Him in Luke 9:23 to deny his own self, take up their cross daily, and follow after Christ, He is demanding that we believe His reward is better than life. Even in semi-cryptic terms, we must believe in the cross and the resurrection.

Sooner or later in the Bible, every command is a gospel command. The whole book is about one main event – the cross and the resurrection – in the life of its one main character, Jesus Christ.

So don’t believe those little children’s ditties and inscriptions on Christian paraphernalia that tell you the Bible is a list of rules. That looks true on the face but is rotten to the core. It only produces Pharisees. The Bible is a book about Jesus, and even when it tells us to do what is right, it is really telling us to live out what we believe and who we believe.

So back to my example (and you may be appalled that I left it alone for this long – what an issue!) – I did tell that young man that there were commands and standards, but I told him there were clear orders because of Jesus. Not because I say so or somebody else does, but because Jesus is risen. If you are to make a claim on Christ, you have to walk with Him by faith. His yoke is easy and His burden is light, because His commands are built on the gospel.

Works-Teachers, Don’t Forget Sin

When I listen to many evangelical teachers, I hear a similar refrain: “Just do what Jesus said to do, and then you’ll be like Him.” This appears true, but so does every false teaching on its facade.

There are several problems here. This works-teaching mangles faith into a “do this, do that, just do stuff” attitude, it ignores Jesus’ teachings on justification by faith alone, and it exchanges atonement for Christ-likeness.

Before all that, however, the “Just do what Jesus said and you’ll be like Him” teaching  misses the biggest problem we have with following Christ – sin. Works-teaching forgets that sin constantly stands in the way of our perfect fellowship with God.

We can never just “become like Jesus” without atonement.

In our sin, we deceive ourselves into thinking we can just up and follow Jesus on our own. But we are never, ever as well off as we think. We must return to the one-time-for-all-time sacrifice of Jesus for sins and kill our sin (Romans 8:1-13), but we must not deceive ourselves and say we have no sin (1 John 1:8-10).

Works-teachers, learn to deal with the heart first, learn to run to the Gospel, then the good works will follow when we have set our eyes upon Jesus.

Works-Teachers, Test Yourselves

Here is a handy checklist I use whenever I, as a husband, father, teacher, and preacher, suspect that I may be getting off the path of faith in favor of works:

  • Do you enjoy talking more about the commands of Scripture than Christ’s accomplishments in Scripture?
  • Do you get more excited about our personal obedience rather than Christ’s sacrificial obedience?
  • Do you reduce Christian “faith” to a list of do’s and don’t’s, however good those do’s and don’t’s may be?
  • When you feel unholy before God, does your mind run to your last good deed or to the crimson stains of the Savior?
  • Do you find your mind running more toward issues of social justice, moral excellence, and political activism rather than Christ’s justice, perfection, and lordship accomplished on the cross?

We are all legalists at heart, friends. The difference between a believer and an unbeliever is, when we see our sinful attitudes, whether we repent and believe the good news about the grace of God (Acts 20:24).

Jesus Taught Justification by Faith Alone

Recently here at crossonmyback, we’ve seen that Jesus didn’t teach justification by works, the point of the Gospels is faith in the cross and resurrection, and justification by faith still needs defending. So today, we’ll word it positively:

Jesus Taught Justification by Faith Alone

Justification by faith alone is all over the Bible (Genesis 15:6, Habakkuk 2:4, Ephesians 2:8-9, etc.), and all of the Bible is of equal worth. However, since some teachers seem to prefer the red letters over the rest, we’ll observe a sampling from the Gospels before we build the whole doctrine (yes, this is a doctrine):

  • Matthew 6:30, 8:10, 8:26: Jesus says that fighting anxiety over material provision, healing the centurion’s servant, and calming the stormy seas are all matters of “faith.”
  • Matthew 9:2, 9:20, 9:29: Jesus says that He heals the paralytic, the woman with the internal bleeding, and the two blind men because of their “faith.”
  • Matthew 21:22: Jesus says that “faith” is the necessary component to answered prayer.
  • Matthew 21:32: Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are condemned because they didn’t “believe” John while the tax collectors and prostitutes did.
  • Matthew 25:21-23: Jesus says that the servants’ good stewardship and subsequent reward are due to the fact that they are “faithful.”
  • Mark 1:15: When Jesus comes preaching in Mark, He commands, “Repent and believe in the gospel.”
  • Mark 9:17-29: Jesus tells the father of the demon-possessed boy that “all things are possible for one who believes,” to which the father responds, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
  • Mark 11:22: When Peter marvels at the withered tree, Jesus first tells him to “have faith in God” and promises that such miracles come from those who “believe.”
  • Luke 7:48-50: Jesus tells the dishonorable woman that He forgave her sins because “your faith has saved you.”
  • Luke 11:13: Jesus says that God gives “the Holy Spirit” to those who trust Him in prayer.
  • Luke 17:1-6: When Jesus gives his teaching about ceaseless forgiveness of our brothers, the disciples say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” To this, Christ encourages them to have “faith.”
  • Luke 18:8: Jesus says that, when He returns, He will be looking for “faith on the earth.”
  • Luke 22:32: Jesus tells Peter that, despite his coming denials, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”
  • John 5:44: Jesus tells the Jews that they cannot “believe” as long as they seek their own glory instead of God’s.
  • John 6:28-29: When the Jews ask Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”, Jesus responds, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
  • John 11:25-26: Jesus tells a grieving Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
  • John 20:27: Jesus places a doubting Thomas’ hands into His own scarred hands and side and tells him, “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

We could go on, but suffice it to say that these examples aren’t the half of just what the Gospels have to say about faith. How much more the rest of the Bible! (I can feel a full, book-long defense of justification by faith alone coming one day, Lord-willing.)

Summary Points Toward a Doctrine
From these verses, we ought to notice a few things:

  1. The words for “faith/faithfulness/trust/believe” are prevalent in the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus.
  2. In nearly every account of healing, casting out demons, or life-anxiety, Jesus commands, responds to, and commends faith.
  3. Jesus further links faith to such important themes as good works, prayer, miracles, perseverance, His own cross and resurrection, and our eternal life in Him.
  4. Jesus often links faith to life in the Holy Spirit.
  5. Several times, Jesus flips the Jewish emphasis on personal works to one of faith in Him.
  6. Most clearly, faith is the only means Christ names for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5, Luke 7:48-50, Luke 9:20, etc).

Jesus Taught This Doctrine
Here it is again: Jesus taught justification by faith alone.

  • It may seem that He used different words, but He also used a lot of the same ones as the rest of the Bible.
  • It might be hard to follow, because His words are framed within a story, called “The Gospels.”
  • The Gospels don’t show Him teaching it in a “systematic” kind of way.

But He still teaches it. It’s what He lived, taught, healed, died, and rose again for – that people would trust Him for salvation from sin and death.

What About Works?
But what about us? Aren’t we supposed to be different?

I’ve covered this in other posts, so we’ll keep it simple here. Works follow and flow from faith, but they never replace faith. The biggest work is that one from God the Spirit (the new birth of John 3), in a person’s heart, to birth and grow faith in Jesus Christ (see John 6:29 above).

Jesus’ didn’t deny works; He put them in their right place. He never, ever taught that works justify, only that they prove true faith. As we have seen, He did clearly teach that faith justifies.

Faith in Him is what makes a sinner right before God. Works have their place, but they don’t belong in the place of faith. What we do never makes us right before God; that’s Jesus’ job, and He finished it well.

For people who tend to focus on works, remember this: an inordinate focus on what we do always overshadows what He has already done. The point of the Gospels, and the whole Bible (according to Jesus in Luke 24, among other texts), is Christ crucified and risen.

It is His sacrificial redemption that makes us “zealous for good works,” in Paul’s language (Titus 2:14), or “the light of the world” in Christ’s (Matthew 5:14). The way we read the connections may be different from Gospel to epistle, but the connection itself is the same. Christ taught justification by faith alone, and we will do well to heed Him with the rest of the God’s written Word.

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